Last week, I told my best friend that I no longer saw myself with an older man.
Years ago, when the blasé nature of guys my own age seemed to wear on my last nerve, I’d started to entertain men who were not only older but felt that way. Over time, I’d come to realize I disliked these power dynamics, seemingly inevitable with age and strong opinions. Deep down, I told my friend, I think I’d always known I was flirting with disaster.
Then, on Thursday night, suffering one of my standard bouts of insomnia, I stared at my ceiling until the middle of the night, listening to Taylor Swift’s new album, Reputation, and getting stuck on a few lyrics in particular: “I’ve been breakin’ hearts a long time / And toyin’ with them older guys” from “Don’t Blame Me,” and “I got a boyfriend, he’s older than us / He’s in the club doing I don’t know what” on her song “Gorgeous.” Once again Taylor’s lyrics knew my heart.
The magic of Taylor Swift’s latest album isn’t, like with her previous albums, a fairy-tale storyline. No, the magic formula on Reputation is perhaps the opposite of that; she’s still singing love songs, but now they’re infused with realism not storybook wonder. Taylor’s sung understanding of love seems to match mine, and once again her latest album has exactly articulated my current understanding of romance.
I came of age in the Era of Taylor Swift; she is 27 to my 25. While she was growing up a lively blonde with two lovely parents and a brother in Pennsylvania, I was growing up a shy brunette with two lovely parents and a brother in Michigan. We were both dreaming about love — and writing about it too — before we ever lived it, carrying around big dreams that would propel us out of our little hometowns.
Despite growing up in an area full of country music devotees, I didn’t care one bit about the genre when the world met Taylor in 2006. But I liked her lyrics, and her songs matched my wild imagination and lack of lived relationship experience. “Love Story” was the pinnacle of what I could imagine love to be, around that age. “Romeo save me, I’ve been feeling so alone,” she sings on the 2008 track, requesting they book it and “run” away together under a veil of darkness. Of course now this no longer sounds like love to me, and it probably doesn’t to Taylor either.
Taylor has frequently spoken for my deeper feelings at any given time; as a girl obsessed with the process of falling in love, if not always doing it myself; and then as a woman building an iron heart around the soft one, damaged with stains and cracks.
Stories of the singer’s romances have been in the tabloids over the years, and I have always remained relatively indifferent to them. I’ve learned that people will tell you their truth, in their way, and the rest is just unreliable gossip, speculation, and hearsay. Her music has always spoken for itself, a snapshot of the journey.
Many have talked about how Taylor seems to transform her image with each new album, perhaps starting with Red, when she began donning crimson lips and straight hair. But wasn’t it inevitable? We were growing and she was too; she just had albums and lyrics to track that growth. She sang about liking bad boys and making bold decisions on songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” just as I also lied to myself about swearing off these types of short-lived dramatic relationships.
The inevitable transformation to adulthood felt real and drastic on Red, where Taylor dabbles in first loves and the emotions those bring, instead of merely imagining them as she did before. “At some point, you grow out of being attracted to that flame that burns you over and over and over again,” she said in an interview in 2012. “Thankfully, I hadn’t learned that lesson yet when I wrote this record.”
On 1989, she was still learning similar lessons, and contextualizing their meaning, beginning to understand that some romances won’t last and some guys will never be the one.
I went through two breakups near the release of 1989; the first with a boyfriend who told me he could lie to me and I’d never know the difference, the second with a boyfriend who actually did. Perhaps cycling through broken men was a necessary introduction into relationships. After all, a “James Dean daydream look in your eye” is no match for “that good girl faith.” In 2015, “Style” was the most spun song on my iTunes list.
In 2015 and 2016, I swore off dating to re-get a grip on myself. I made friends, I wrote a book about love, I broke free. “Ten months sober, I must admit,” Taylor sings on “Clean,” which I’d listen to just before I fell asleep in months of post-heartbreak numbness. “Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it.”
Replacing those happy-go-lucky daydreams of our younger years (and her younger years), those newer songs were a necessary catharsis for me. On Reputation, again, Taylor cuts deeper and has never been more honest.
She sings about sex on “Dress.” She swears on “I Did Something Bad.” She admits to using a guy, and perhaps being used, on the shady-song-with-a-catchy-sound “Getaway Car.” She talks about partying and drinking throughout, instead of leaving large gaps to our imagination. She is more grown up, and so am I, and so are we.
A lot has happened since Taylor’s eponymous album dropped in 2006. The backdrop to all our coming-of-age stories has been a revolution. The world and its issues now feel darker and more pressing than ever. We’re seeing reform and overhaul, as sour-tasting and sad as it is necessary, inequality gaps magnified and quiet injustices amplified. Women are speaking up about the ugliest aspects of silent sexism and forcing men to acknowledge it too.
There are pursuits more or as vital as love, and, as such, many of us have taken ownership of our independence, financial and otherwise. (I think poet Nayyirah Waheed said it best: “i am mine. before i am ever anyone else’s.”)
This version of adulthood and relationships feels like a far cry from early Taylor Swift lyrics, which include multiple references to kissing in the rain and wasting time on unrequited crushes. With her persecution tour of 2016, and then her sexual assault trial win in 2017, Taylor is no stranger to the ups, downs, and heavier elements of maturation. Dealing with those realities of adulthood can make the imagined version of love as hollow as a tin can.
Taylor is now grown up, and many of us have grown up with her. Our conceptualization of love in “it’s complicated” culture has changed. We are looking for partners, not keepers. It is complicated. The distance between teenager and twentysomething is measured in miles, not inches.
Love now falls alongside other similarly huge priorities, like discovering ourselves on our own terms, chasing opportunities, and finding real friends. Yes, like so many of us who have matured right along with her, Taylor is now a grown woman who just wants to be real and be seen. “Here’s a toast to my real friends / They don’t care about the he-said-she-said,” she sings on Reputation’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” “And here’s to my baby / He ain’t reading what they call me lately.”
On “Delicate,” she details the fraught, fragile feelings at the beginning a relationship, hyperaware of how quickly things can come together and fall apart, that great dates don’t always end in cinematic happily-ever-afters. “Is it cool that I said all that? / Is it chill that you’re in my head? / ‘Cause I know that it’s delicate,” she sings, only hoping this person will see through the noise and nonsense that isn’t the real her.
“This ain’t for the best / My reputation’s never been worse, so,” she continues. But he shows up. “You must like me for me.” Only the right person will.
From life comes the best art, not the other way around. Everything was a little too pretty on Fearless and Speak Now, because a lot of us girls had hearts that still were. Untainted, naive, hopeful. We now prefer the gritty reality of love, and life, as opposed to the fantasy. It is easier to manage life, and love, when you’re honest about what it really is.
We can now recall songs like “Love Story” with a knowing smile. Plenty of fans noticed the wink to Taylor’s former Romeo in “Call It What You Want,” the penultimate track off her latest album. “‘You don’t need to save me / But would you run away with me?’ Yes,” she says.
Who would have thought the bittersweet, humiliated, “exposed good girl” version of reality would be more vastly fulfilling than the fairy tale? Likely not Taylor; certainly not me.
Taylor has seemingly learned that the best lovers don’t kiss you at midnight as the ball drops; they help you clean up the day-after mess, on Reputation’s closer, “New Year’s Day.” In my humble opinion, after 11 years, six albums, and miles of growth, it’s the sexiest thing she’s ever written.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018).
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